Chapter 7. Certitude

1. Assent and Certitude contrasted

{210} IN proceeding to compare together simple assent and complex, that is, Assent and Certitude, I begin by observing, that popularly no distinction is made between the two; or rather, that in religious teaching that is called Certitude to which I have given the name of Assent. I have no difficulty in adopting such a use of the words, though the course of my investigation has led me to another. Perhaps religious assent may be fitly called, to use a theological term, "material certitude;" and the first point of comparison which I shall make between the two states of mind, will serve to set me right with the common way of speaking.

1. It certainly follows then, from the distinctions which I have made, that great numbers of men must be considered to pass through life with neither doubt nor, on the other hand, certitude (as I have used the words) on the most important propositions which can occupy their minds, but with only a simple assent, that {211} is, an assent which they barely recognize, or bring home to their consciousness or reflect upon, as being assent. Such an assent is all that religious Protestants commonly have to show, who believe nevertheless with their whole hearts the contents of Holy Scripture. Such too is the state of mind of multitudes of good Catholics, perhaps the majority, who live and die in a simple, full, firm belief in all that the Church teaches, because she teaches it,—in the belief of the irreversible truth of whatever she defines and declares,—but who, as being far removed from Protestant and other dissentients, and having but little intellectual training, have never had the temptation to doubt, and never the opportunity to be certain. There were whole nations in the middle ages thus steeped in the Catholic Faith, who never used its doctrines as matter for argument or research, or changed the original belief of their childhood into the more scientific convictions of philosophy. As there is a condition of mind which is characterized by invincible ignorance, so there is another which may be said to be possessed of invincible knowledge; and it would be paradoxical in me to deny to such a mental state the highest quality of religious faith,—I mean certitude.

I allow this, and therefore I will call simple assent material certitude; or, to use a still more apposite term for it, interpretative certitude. I call it interpretative, signifying thereby that, though the assent in the individuals here contemplated is not a reflex act, still the question only has to be started about the truth of the objects of their assent, in order to elicit from them an {212} act of faith in response which will fulfil the conditions of certitude, as I have drawn them out. As to the argumentative process necessary for such an act, it is valid and sufficient, if it be carried out seriously, and proportionate to their several capacities:—"The Catholic Religion is true, because its objects, as present to my mind, control and influence my conduct as nothing else does;" or "because it has about it an odour of truth and sanctity sui generis, as perceptible to my moral nature as flowers to my sense, such as can only come from heaven;" or "because it has never been to me any thing but peace, joy, consolation, and strength, all through my troubled life." And if the particular argument used in some instances needs strengthening, then let it be observed, that the keenness of the real apprehension with which the assent is made, though it cannot be the legitimate basis of the assent, may still legitimately act, and strongly act, in confirmation. Such, I say, would be the promptitude and effectiveness of the reasoning, and the facility of the change from assent to certitude proper, in the case of the multitudes in question, did the occasion for reflection occur; but it does not occur; and accordingly, most genuine and thorough as is the assent, it can only be called virtual, material, or interpretative certitude, if I have above explained certitude rightly.

Of course these remarks hold good in secular subjects as well as religious:—I believe, for instance, that I am living in an island, that Julius Csar once invaded it, that it has been conquered by successive races, that it has had great political and social changes, and that at {213} this time it has colonies, establishments, and imperial dominion all over the earth. All this I am accustomed to take for granted without a thought; but, were the need to arise, I should not find much difficulty in drawing out from my own mental resources reasons sufficient to justify me in these beliefs.

It is true indeed that, among the multitudes who are thus implicitly certain, there may be those who would change their assents, did they seek to place them upon an argumentative footing; for instance, some believers in Christianity, did they examine into its claims, might end in renouncing it. But this is only saying that there are genuine assents, and assents that ultimately become not genuine; and again, that there is an assent which is not a virtual certitude, and is lost in the attempt to make it certitude. And of course we are not gifted with that insight into the minds of individuals, which enables us to determine before the event, when it is that an assent is really such, and when not, or not a deeply rooted assent. Men may assent lightly, or from mere prejudice, or without understanding what it is to which they assent. They may be genuine believers in Revelation up to the time when they begin formally to examine,—nay, and really have implicit reasons for their belief,—and then, being overcome by the number of views which they have to confront, and swayed by the urgency of special objections, or biassed by their imaginations, or frightened by a deeper insight into the claims of religion upon the soul, may, in spite of their habitual and latent grounds for believing, shrink back and withdraw their assent. Or again, they may once {214} have believed, but their assent has gradually become a mere profession, without their knowing it; then, when by accident they interrogate themselves, they find no assent within them at all to turn into certitude. The event, I say, alone determines whether what is outwardly an assent is really such an act of the mind as admits of being developed into certitude, or is a mere self-delusion or a cloak for unbelief.

2. Next, I observe, that, of the two modes of apprehending propositions, notional and real, assent, as I have already said, has closer relations with real than with notional. Now a simple assent need not be notional; but the reflex or confirmatory assent of certitude always is given to a notional proposition, viz., to the truth, necessity, duty, &c., of our assent to the simple assent and to its proposition. Its predicate is a general term, and cannot stand for a fact, whereas the original proposition, included in it, may, and often does, express a fact. Thus, "The cholera is in the midst of us" is a real proposition; but "That 'the cholera is in the midst of us' is beyond all doubt" is a notional. Now assent to a real proposition is assent to an imagination, and an imagination, as supplying objects to our emotional and moral nature, is adapted to be a principle of action: accordingly, the simple assent to "The cholera is among us," is more emphatic and operative, than the confirmatory assent, "It is beyond reasonable doubt that 'the cholera is among us.'" The confirmation gives momentum to the complex act of the mind, but the simple assent gives it its edge. The simple assent would still be operative in its measure, though the reflex assent {215} was, not "It is undeniable," but "It is probable" that "the cholera is among us;" whereas there would be no operative force in the mental act at all, though the reflex assent was to the truth, not to the probability of the fact, if the fact which was the object of the simple assent was nothing more than "The cholera is in China." The reflex assent then, which is the characteristic of certitude, does not immediately touch us; it is purely intellectual, and, taken by itself, has scarcely more force than the recording of a conclusion.

I have taken an instance, in which the matter which is submitted for examination and for assent, can hardly fail of being interesting to the minds employed upon it; but in many cases, even though the fact assented-to has a bearing upon action, it is not directly of a nature to influence the feelings or conduct, except of particular persons. And in such instances of certitude, the previous labour of coming to a conclusion, and that repose of mind which I have above described as attendant on an assent to its truth, often counteracts whatever of lively sensation the fact thus concluded is in itself adapted to excite; so that what is gained in depth and exactness of belief is lost as regards freshness and vigour. Hence it is that literary or scientific men, who may have investigated some difficult point of history, philosophy, or physics, and have come to their own settled conclusion about it, having had a perfect right to form one, are far more disposed to be silent as to their convictions, and to let others alone, than partisans on either side of the question, who take it {216} up with less thought and seriousness. And so again, in the religious world, no one seems to look for any great devotion or fervour in controversialists, writers on Christian Evidences, theologians, and the like, it being taken for granted, rightly or wrongly, that such men are too intellectual to be spiritual, and are more occupied with the truth of doctrine than with its reality. If, on the other hand, we would see what the force of simple assent can be, viewed apart from its reflex confirmation, we have but to look at the generous and uncalculating energy of faith as exemplified in the primitive Martyrs, in the youths who defied the pagan tyrant, or the maidens who were silent under his tortures. It is assent, pure and simple, which is the motive cause of great achievements; it is a confidence, growing out of instincts rather than arguments, stayed upon a vivid apprehension, and animated by a transcendent logic, more concentrated in will and in deed for the very reason that it has not been subjected to any intellectual development.

It must be borne in mind, that, in thus speaking, I am contrasting with each other the simple and the reflex assent, which together make up the complex act of certitude. In its complete exhibition keenness in believing is united with repose and persistence.

3. We must take the constitution of the human mind as we find it, and not as we may judge it ought to be;—thus I am led on to another remark, which is at first sight disadvantageous to Certitude. Introspection of our intellectual operations is not the best of means for preserving us from intellectual hesitations. {217} To meddle with the springs of thought and action is really to weaken them; and, as to that argumentation which is the preliminary to Certitude, it may indeed be unavoidable, but, as in the case of other serviceable allies, it is not so easy to discard it, after it has done its work, as it was in the first instance to obtain its assistance. Questioning, when encouraged on any subject-matter, readily becomes a habit, and leads the mind to substitute exercises of inference for assent, whether simple or complex. Reasons for assenting suggest reasons for not assenting, and what were realities to our imagination, while our assent was simple, may become little more than notions, when we have attained to certitude. Objections and difficulties tell upon the mind; it may lose its elasticity, and be unable to throw them off. And thus, even as regards things which it may be absurd to doubt, we may, in consequence of some past suggestion of the possibility of error, or of some chance association to their disadvantage, be teazed from time to time and hampered by involuntary questionings, as if we were not certain, when we are. Nay, there are those, who are visited with these even permanently, as a sort of musc volitantes of their mental vision, ever flitting to and fro, and dimming its clearness and completeness—visitants, for which they are not responsible, and which they know to be unreal, still so seriously interfering with their comfort and even with their energy, that they may be tempted to complain that even blind prejudice has more of quiet and of durability than certitude.

As even Saints may suffer from imaginations in which {218} they have no part, so the shreds and tatters of former controversies, and the litter of an argumentative habit, may beset and obstruct the intellect,—questions which have been solved without their solutions, chains of reasoning with missing links, difficulties which have their roots in the nature of things, and which are necessarily left behind in a philosophical inquiry because they cannot be removed, and which call for the exercise of good sense and for strength of will to put them down with a high hand, as irrational or preposterous. Whence comes evil? why are we created without our consent? how can the Supreme Being have no beginning? how can He need skill, if He is omnipotent? if He is omnipotent, why does He permit suffering? If He permits suffering, how is He all-loving? if He is all-loving, how can He be just? if He is infinite, what has He to do with the finite? how can the temporary be decisive of the eternal?—these, and a host of like questions, must arise in every thoughtful mind, and, after the best use of reason, must be deliberately put aside, as beyond reason, as (so to speak) no-thoroughfares, which, having no outlet themselves, have no legitimate power to divert us from the King's highway, and to hinder the direct course of religious inquiry from reaching its destination. A serious obstruction, however, they will be now and then to particular minds, enfeebling the faith which they cannot destroy,—being parallel to the uncomfortable associations with which sometimes we regard one whom we have fallen-in with, acquaintance or stranger, arising from some chance word, look, or action of his which we have witnessed, and which prejudices him in our imagination, {219} though we are angry with ourselves that it should do so.

Again, when, in confidence of our own certitude, and with a view to philosophical fairness, we have attempted successfully to throw ourselves out of our habits of belief into a simply dispassionate frame of mind, then vague antecedent improbabilities, or what seem to us as such,—merely what is strange or marvellous in certain truths, merely the fact that things happen in one way and not in another, when they must happen in some way,—may disturb us, as suggesting to us, "Is it possible? who would have thought it! what a coincidence!" without really touching the deep assent of our whole intellectual being to the object, whatever it be, thus irrationally assailed. Thus we may wonder at the Divine Mercy of the Incarnation, till we grow startled at it, and ask why the earth has so special a theological history, or why we are Christians and others not, or how God can really exert a particular governance, since He does not punish such sinners as we are, thus seeming to doubt His power or His equity, though in truth we are not doubting at all.

The occasion of this intellectual waywardness may be slighter still. I gaze on the Palatine Hill, or on the Parthenon, or on the Pyramids, which I have read of from a boy, or upon the matter-of-fact reality of the sacred places in the Holy Land, and I have to force my imagination to follow the guidance of sight and of reason. It is to me so strange that a lifelong belief should be changed into sight, and things should be so near me, which hitherto had been visions. And so in times, first of suspense, then of joy; "When the {220} Lord turned the captivity of Sion, then" (according to the Hebrew text) "we were like unto them that dream." Yet it was a dream which they were certain was a truth, while they seemed to doubt it. So, too, was it in some sense with the Apostles after our Lord's resurrection.

Such vague thoughts, haunting or evanescent, are in no sense akin to that struggle between faith and unbelief, which made the poor father cry out, "I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!" Nay, even what in some minds seems like an undercurrent of scepticism, or a faith founded on a perilous substratum of doubt, need not be more than a temptation, though robbing Certitude of its normal peacefulness. In such a case, faith may still express the steady conviction of the intellect; it may still be the grave, deep, calm, prudent assurance of mature experience, though it is not the ready and impetuous assent of the young, the generous, or the unreflecting.

4. There is another characteristic of Certitude, in contrast with Assent, which it is important to insist upon, and that is, its persistence. Assents may and do change; certitudes endure. This is why religion demands more than an assent to its truth; it requires a certitude, or at least an assent which is convertible into certitude on demand. Without certitude in religious faith there may be much decency of profession and of observance, but there can be no habit of prayer, no directness of devotion, no intercourse with the unseen, no generosity of self-sacrifice. Certitude then is essential to the Christian; and if he is to persevere to the end, his certitude must include in it a principle of persistence. This it has; as I shall explain in the next Section. {221}

Top | Contents | Works | Home

2. Indefectibility of Certitude

IT is the characteristic of certitude that its object is a truth, a truth as such, a proposition as true. There are right and wrong convictions, and certitude is a right conviction; if it is not right with a consciousness of being right, it is not certitude. Now truth cannot change; what is once truth is always truth; and the human mind is made for truth, and so rests in truth, as it cannot rest in falsehood. When then it once becomes possessed of a truth, what is to dispossess it? but this is to be certain; therefore once certitude, always certitude. If certitude in any matter be the termination of all doubt or fear about its truth, and an unconditional conscious adherence to it, it carries with it an inward assurance, strong though implicit, that it shall never fail. Indefectibility almost enters into its very idea, enters into it at least so far as this, that its failure, if of frequent occurrence, would prove that certitude was after all and in fact an impossible act, and that what looked like it was a mere extravagance of the intellect. Truth would still be truth, but the knowledge of it would be beyond us and unattainable. It is of great importance then to show, that, as a general rule, certitude does not fail; that failures of {222} what was taken for certitude are the exception; that the intellect, which is made for truth, can attain truth, and, having attained it, can keep it, can recognize it, and preserve the recognition.

This is on the whole reasonable; yet are the stipulations, thus obviously necessary for an act or state of certitude, ever fulfilled? We know what conjecture is, and what opinion, and what assent is, can we point out any specific state or habit of thought, of which the distinguishing mark is unchangeableness? On the contrary, any conviction, false as well as true, may last; and any conviction, true as well as false, may be lost. A conviction in favour of a proposition may be exchanged for a conviction of its contradictory; and each of them may be attended, while they last, by that sense of security and repose, which a true object alone can legitimately impart. No line can be drawn between such real certitudes as have truth for their object, and apparent certitudes. No distinct test can be named, sufficient to discriminate between what may be called the false prophet and the true. What looks like certitude always is exposed to the chance of turning out to be a mistake. If our intimate, deliberate conviction may be counterfeit in the case of one proposition, why not in the case of another? if in the case of one man, why not in the case of a hundred? Is certitude then ever possible without the attendant gift of infallibility? can we know what is right in one case, unless we are secured against error in any? Further, if one man is infallible, why is he different from his brethren? unless indeed he is distinctly marked out for the prerogative. {223} Must not all men be infallible by consequence, if any man is to be considered as certain?

The difficulty, thus stated argumentatively, has only too accurate a response in what actually goes on in the world. It is a fact of daily occurrence that men change their certitudes, that is, what they consider to be such, and are as confident and well-established in their new opinions as they were once in their old. They take up forms of religion only to leave them for their contradictories. They risk their fortunes and their lives on impossible adventures. They commit themselves by word and deed, in reputation and position, to schemes which in the event they bitterly repent of and renounce; they set out in youth with intemperate confidence in prospects which fail them, and in friends who betray them, ere they come to middle age; and they end their days in cynical disbelief of truth and virtue any where;—and often, the more absurd are their means and their ends, so much the longer do they cling to them, and then again so much the more passionate is their eventual disgust and contempt of them. How then can certitude be theirs, how is certitude possible at all, considering it is so often misplaced, so often fickle and inconsistent, so deficient in available criteria? And, as to the feeling of finality and security, ought it ever to be indulged? Is it not a mere weakness or extravagance, a deceit, to be eschewed by every clear and prudent mind? With the countless instances, on all sides of us, of human fallibility, with the constant exhibitions of antagonist certitudes, who can so sin against modesty and sobriety of mind, as not to be content with probability, {224} as the true guide of life, renouncing ambitious thoughts, which are sure either to delude him, or to disappoint?

This is what may be objected: now let us see what can be said in answer, particularly as regards religious certitude.


First, as to fallibility and infallibility. It is very common, doubtless, especially in religious controversy, to confuse infallibility with certitude, and to argue that, since we have not the one, we have not the other, for that no one can claim to be certain on any point, who is not infallible about all; but the two words stand for things quite distinct from each other. For example, I remember for certain what I did yesterday, but still my memory is not infallible; I am quite clear that two and two make four, but I often make mistakes in long addition sums. I have no doubt whatever that John or Richard is my true friend, but I have before now trusted those who failed me, and I may do so again before I die. A certitude is directed to this or that particular proposition; it is not a faculty or gift, but a disposition of mind relatively to a definite case which is before me. Infallibility, on the contrary, is just that which certitude is not; it is a faculty or gift, and relates, not to some one truth in particular, but to all possible propositions in a given subject-matter. We ought in strict propriety, to speak, not of infallible acts, but of acts of infallibility. A belief or opinion as little admits of being called infallible, as a deed can correctly be called immortal. A deed is done and over; it may be great, momentous, effective, anything {225} but immortal; it is its fame, it is the work which it brings to pass, which is immortal, not the deed itself. And as a deed is good or bad, but never immortal, so a belief, opinion, or certitude is true or false, but never infallible. We cannot speak of things which exist or things which once were, as if they were something in posse. It is persons and rules that are infallible, not what is brought out into act, or committed to paper. A man is infallible, whose words are always true; a rule is infallible, if it is unerring in all its possible applications. An infallible authority is certain in every particular case that may arise; but a man who is certain in some one definite case, is not on that account infallible.

I am quite certain that Victoria is our Sovereign, and not her father, the late Duke of Kent, without laying any claim to the gift of infallibility; as I may do a virtuous action, without being impeccable. I may be certain that the Church is infallible, while I am myself a fallible mortal; otherwise, I cannot be certain that the Supreme Being is infallible, until I am infallible myself. It is a strange objection, then, which is sometimes urged against Catholics, that they cannot prove and assent to the Church's infallibility, unless they first believe in their own. Certitude, as I have said, is directed to one or other definite concrete proposition. I am certain of proposition one, two, three, four, or five, one by one, each by itself. I may be certain of one of them, without being certain of the rest; that I am certain of the first makes it neither likely nor unlikely that I am certain of the second; {226} but were I infallible, then I should be certain, not only of one of them, but of all, and of many more besides, which have never come before me as yet. Therefore we may be certain of the infallibility of the Church, while we admit that in many things we are not, and cannot be, certain at all.

It is wonderful that a clear-headed man, like Chillingworth, sees this as little as the run of everyday objectors to the Catholic religion; for in his celebrated "Religion of Protestants" he writes as follows:—"You tell me they cannot be saved, unless they believe in your proposals with an infallible faith. To which end they must believe also your propounder, the Church, to be simply infallible. Now how is it possible for them to give a rational assent to the Church's infallibility, unless they have some infallible means to know that she is infallible? Neither can they infallibly know the infallibility of this means, but by some other; and so on for ever, unless they can dig so deep, as to come at length to the Rock, that is, to settle all upon something evident of itself, which is not so much as pretended." [Note]

Now what is an "infallible means"? It is a means of coming at a fact without the chance of mistake. It is a proof which is sufficient for certitude in the particular case, or a proof that is certain. When then Chillingworth says that there can be no "rational assent to the Church's infallibility" without "some infallible means of knowing that she is infallible," he means nothing else than some means which is {227} certain; he says that for a rational assent to infallibility there must be an absolutely valid or certain proof. This is intelligible; but observe how his argument will run, if worded according to this interpretation: "The doctrine of the Church's infallibility requires a proof that is certain; and that certain proof requires another previous certain proof, and that again another, and so on ad infinitum, unless indeed we dig so deep as to settle all upon something evident of itself." What is this but to say that nothing in this world is certain but what is self-evident? that nothing can be absolutely proved? Can he really mean this? What then becomes of physical truth? of the discoveries in optics, chemistry, and electricity, or of the science of motion? Intuition by itself will carry us but a little way into that circle of knowledge which is the boast of the present age.

I can believe then in the infallible Church without my own personal infallibility. Certitude is at most nothing more than infallibility pro hac vice, and promises nothing as to the truth of any proposition beside its own. That I am certain of this proposition today, is no ground for thinking that I shall have a right to be certain of that proposition tomorrow; and that I am wrong in my convictions about today's proposition, does not hinder my having a true conviction, a genuine certitude, about tomorrow's proposition. If indeed I claimed to be infallible, one failure would shiver my claim to pieces; but I may claim to be certain of the truth to which I have already attained, though I should arrive at no new truths in addition as long as I live. {228}


Let us put aside the word "infallibility;" let us understand by certitude, as I have explained it, nothing more than a relation of the mind towards given propositions:—still, it may be urged, it involves a sense of security and of repose, at least as regards these in particular. Now how can this security be mine,—without which certitude is not,—if I know, as I know too well, that before now I have thought myself certain, when I was certain after all of an untruth? Is not the very possibility of certitude lost to me for ever by that one mistake? What happened once, may happen again. All my certitudes before and after are henceforth destroyed by the introduction of a reasonable doubt, underlying them all. Ipso facto they cease to be certitudes,—they come short of unconditional assents by the measure of that counterfeit assurance. They are nothing more to me than opinions or anticipations, judgments on the verisimilitude of intellectual views, not the possession and enjoyment of truths. And who has not thus been balked by false certitudes a hundred times in the course of his experience? and how can certitude have a legitimate place in our mental constitution, when it thus manifestly ministers to error and to scepticism?

This is what may be objected, and it is not, as I think, difficult to answer. Certainly, the experience of mistakes in the assents which we have made are to the prejudice of subsequent ones. There is an antecedent difficulty in our allowing ourselves to be certain of something {229} today, if yesterday we had to give up our belief of something else, of which we had up to that time professed ourselves to be certain. This is true; but antecedent objections to an act are not sufficient of themselves to prohibit its exercise; they may demand of us an increased circumspection before committing ourselves to it, but may be met with reasons more than sufficient to overcome them.

It must be recollected that certitude is a deliberate assent given expressly after reasoning. If then my certitude is unfounded, it is the reasoning that is in fault, not my assent to it. It is the law of my mind to seal up the conclusions to which ratiocination has brought me, by that formal assent which I have called a certitude. I could indeed have withheld my assent, but I should have acted against my nature, had I done so when there was what I considered a proof; and I did only what was fitting, what was incumbent on me, upon those existing conditions, in giving it. This is the process by which knowledge accumulates and is stored up both in the individual and in the world. It has sometimes been remarked, when men have boasted of the knowledge of modern times, that no wonder we see more than the ancients, because we are mounted upon their shoulders. The conclusions of one generation are the truths of the next. We are able, it is our duty, deliberately to take things for granted which our forefathers had a duty to doubt about; and unless we summarily put down disputation on points which have been already proved and ruled, we shall waste our time, and make no advances. Circumstances indeed may arise, when a {230} question may legitimately be revived, which has already been definitely determined; but a re-consideration of such a question need not abruptly unsettle the existing certitude of those who engage in it, or throw them into a scepticism about things in general, even though eventually they find they have been wrong in a particular matter. It would have been absurd to prohibit the controversy which has lately been held concerning the obligations of Newton to Pascal; and supposing it had issued in their being established, the partisans of Newton would not have thought it necessary to renounce their certitude of the law of gravitation itself, on the ground that they had been mistaken in their certitude that Newton discovered it.

If we are never to be certain, after having been once certain wrongly, then we ought never to attempt a proof because we have once made a bad one. Errors in reasoning are lessons and warnings, not to give up reasoning, but to reason with greater caution. It is absurd to break up the whole structure of our knowledge, which is the glory of the human intellect, because the intellect is not infallible in its conclusions. If in any particular case we have been mistaken in our inferences and the certitudes which followed upon them, we are bound of course to take the fact of this mistake into account, in making up our minds on any new question, before we proceed to decide upon it. But if, while weighing the arguments on one side and the other and drawing our conclusion, that old mistake has already been allowed for, or has been, to use a familiar mode of speaking, discounted, then it has no {231} outstanding claim against our acceptance of that conclusion, after it has actually been drawn. Whatever be the legitimate weight of the fact of that mistake in our inquiry, justice has been done to it, before we have allowed ourselves to be certain again. Suppose I am walking out in the moonlight, and see dimly the outlines of some figure among the trees;—it is a man. I draw nearer,—it is still a man; nearer still, and all hesitation is at an end,—I am certain it is a man. But he neither moves, nor speaks when I address him; and then I ask myself what can be his purpose in hiding among the trees at such an hour. I come quite close to him, and put out my arm. Then I find for certain that what I took for a man is but a singular shadow, formed by the falling of the moonlight on the interstices of some branches or their foliage. Am I not to indulge my second certitude, because I was wrong in my first? does not any objection, which lies against my second from the failure of my first, fade away before the evidence on which my second is founded?

Or again: I depose on my oath in a court of justice, to the best of my knowledge and belief, that I was robbed by the prisoner at the bar. Then, when the real offender is brought before me, I am obliged, to my great confusion, to retract. Because I have been mistaken in my certitude, may I not at least be certain that I have been mistaken? And further, in spite of the shock which that mistake gives me, is it impossible that the sight of the real culprit may give me so luminous a conviction that at length I have got the right man, that, were it decent towards the court, or consistent with self-respect, {232} I may find myself prepared to swear to the identity of the second, as I have already solemnly committed myself to the identity of the first? It is manifest that the two certitudes stand each on its own basis, and the antecedent objection to my admission of a truth which was brought home to me second, drawn from a hallucination which came first, is a mere abstract argument, impotent when directed against good evidence lying in the concrete.


If in the criminal case which I have been supposing, the second certitude, felt by a witness, was a legitimate state of mind, so was the first. An act, viewed in itself, is not wrong because it is done wrongly. False certitudes are faults because they are false, not because they are (supposed) certitudes. They are, or may be, the attempts and the failures of an intellect insufficiently trained, or off its guard. Assent is an act of the mind, congenial to its nature; and it, as other acts, may be made both when it ought to be made, and when it ought not. It is a free act, a personal act for which the doer is responsible, and the actual mistakes in making it, be they ever so numerous or serious, have no force whatever to prohibit the act itself. We are accustomed in such cases, to appeal to the maxim, "Usum non tollit abusus;" and it is plain that, if what may be called functional disarrangements of the intellect are to be considered fatal to the recognition of the functions themselves, then the mind has no laws whatever and no normal constitution. I just now spoke of the growth {233} of knowledge; there is also a growth in the use of those faculties by which knowledge is acquired. The intellect admits of an education; man is a being of progress; he has to learn how to fulfil his end, and to be what facts show that he is intended to be. His mind is in the first instance in disorder, and runs wild; his faculties have their rudimental and inchoate state, and are gradually carried on by practice and experience to their perfection. No instances then whatever of mistaken certitude are sufficient to constitute a proof, that certitude itself is a perversion or extravagance of his nature.

We do not dispense with clocks, because from time to time they go wrong, and tell untruly. A clock, organically considered, may be perfect, yet it may require regulating. Till that needful work is done, the moment-hand perhaps marks the half-minute, when the minute-hand is at the quarter-past, and the hour hand is just at noon, and the quarter-bell strikes the three-quarters, and the hour-bell strikes four, while the sun-dial precisely tells two o'clock. The sense of certitude may be called the bell of the intellect; and that it strikes when it should not is a proof that the clock is out of order, no proof that the bell will be untrustworthy and useless, when it comes to us adjusted and regulated from the hands of the clock-maker.

Our conscience too may be said to strike the hours, and will strike them wrongly, unless it be duly regulated for the performance of its proper function. It is the loud announcement of the principle of right in the details of conduct, as the sense of certitude is the clear witness to what is true. Both certitude and conscience {234} have a place in the normal condition of the mind. As a human being, I am unable, if I were to try, to live without some kind of conscience; and I am as little able to live without those landmarks of thought which certitude secures for me; still, as the hammer of a clock may tell untruly, so may my conscience and my sense of certitude be attached to mental acts, whether of consent or of assent, which have no claim to be thus sanctioned. Both the moral and the intellectual sanction are liable to be biassed by personal inclinations and motives; both require and admit of discipline; and, as it is no disproof of the authority of conscience that false consciences abound, neither does it destroy the importance and the uses of certitude, because even educated minds, who are earnest in their inquiries after the truth, in many cases remain under the power of prejudice or delusion.

To this deficiency in mental training a wider error is to be attributed,—the mistaking for conviction and certitude states and frames of mind which make no pretence to the fundamental condition on which conviction rests as distinct from assent. The multitude of men confuse together the probable, the possible, and the certain, and apply these terms to doctrines and statements almost at random. They have no clear view what it is they know, what they presume, what they suppose, and what they only assert. They make little distinction between credence, opinion, and profession; at various times they give them all perhaps the name of certitude, and accordingly, when they change their minds, they fancy they have given up points of {235} which they had a true conviction. Or at least bystanders thus speak of them, and the very idea of certitude falls into disrepute.

In this day the subject-matter of thought and belief has so increased upon us, that a far higher mental formation is required than was necessary in times past, and higher than we have actually reached. The whole world is brought to our doors every morning, and our judgment is required upon social concerns, books, persons, parties, creeds, national acts, political principles and measures. We have to form our opinion, make our profession, take our side on a hundred matters on which we have but little right to speak at all. But we do speak, and must speak, upon them, though neither we nor those who hear us are well able to determine what is the real position of our intellect relatively to those many questions, one by one, on which we commit ourselves; and then, since many of these questions change their complexion with the passing hour, and many require elaborate consideration, and many are simply beyond us, it is not wonderful, if, at the end of a few years, we have to revise or to repudiate our conclusions; and then we shall be unfairly said to have changed our certitudes, and shall confirm the doctrine, that, except in abstract truth, no judgment rises higher than probability.

Such are the mistakes about certitude among educated men; and after referring to them, it is scarcely worth while to dwell upon the absurdities and excesses of the rude intellect, as seen in the world at large; as if any one could dream of treating as deliberate assents, {236} as assents upon assents, as convictions or certitudes, the prejudices, credulities, infatuations, superstitions, fanaticisms, the whims and fancies, the sudden irrevocable plunges into the unknown, the obstinate determinations,—the offspring, as they are, of ignorance, wilfulness, cupidity, and pride,—which go so far to make up the history of mankind; yet these are often set down as instances of certitude and of its failure.


I have spoken of certitude as being assigned a definite and fixed place among our mental acts; it follows upon examination and proof, as the bell sounds the hour, when the hands reach it,—so that no act or state of the intellect is certitude, however it may resemble it, which does not observe this appointed law. This proviso greatly diminishes the catalogue of genuine certitudes. Another restriction is this:—the occasions or subject-matters of certitude are under law also. Putting aside the daily exercise of the senses, the principal subjects in secular knowledge, about which we can be certain, are the truths or facts which are its basis. As to this world, we are certain of the elements of knowledge, whether general, scientific, historical, or such as bear on our daily needs and habits, and relate to ourselves, our homes and families, our friends, neighbourhood, country, and civil state. Beyond these elementary points of knowledge, lies a vast subject-matter of opinion, credence, and belief, viz. the field of public affairs, of social and professional life, of business, of duty, of literature, of taste, nay, of the {237} experimental sciences. On subjects such as these the reasonings and conclusions of mankind vary,—"mundum tradidit disputationi eorum;"—and prudent men in consequence seldom speak confidently, unless they are warranted to do so by genius, great experience, or some special qualification. They determine their judgments by what is probable, what is safe, what promises best, what has verisimilitude, what impresses and sways them. They neither can possess, nor need certitude, nor do they look out for it.

Hence it is that—the province of certitude being so contracted, and that of opinion so large—it is common to call probability the guide of life. This saying, when properly explained, is true; however, we must not suffer ourselves to carry a true maxim to an extreme; it is far from true, if we so hold it as to forget that without first principles there can be no conclusions at all, and that thus probability does in some sense presuppose and require the existence of truths which are certain. Especially is the maxim untrue, in respect to the other great department of knowledge, the spiritual, if taken to support the doctrine, that the first principles and elements of religion, which are universally received, are mere matter of opinion; though in this day, it is too often taken for granted that religion is one of those subjects on which truth cannot be discovered, and on which one conclusion is pretty much on a level with another. But on the contrary, the initial truths of divine knowledge ought to be viewed as parallel to the initial truths of secular: as the latter are certain, so too are the former. I cannot indeed deny that a decent {238} reverence for the Supreme Being, an acquiescence in the claims of Revelation, a general profession of Christian doctrine, and some sort of attendance on sacred ordinances, is in fact all the religion that is usual with even the better sort of men, and that for all this a sufficient basis may certainly be found in probabilities; but if religion is to be devotion, and not a mere matter of sentiment, if it is to be made the ruling principle of our lives, if our actions, one by one, and our daily conduct, are to be consistently directed towards an Invisible Being, we need something higher than a mere balance of arguments to fix and to control our minds. Sacrifice of wealth, name, or position, faith and hope, self-conquest, communion with the spiritual world, presuppose a real hold and habitual intuition of the objects of Revelation, which is certitude under another name.

To this issue indeed we may bring the main difference, viewed philosophically, between nominal Christianity on the one hand, and vital Christianity on the other. Rational, sensible men, as they consider themselves, men who do not comprehend the very notion of loving God above all things, are content with such a measure of probability for the truths of religion, as serves them in their secular transactions; but those who are deliberately staking their all upon the hopes of the next world, think it reasonable, and find it necessary, before starting on their new course, to have some points, clear and immutable, to start from; otherwise, they will not start at all. They ask, as a preliminary condition, to have the ground sure under their feet; they look for more than human reasonings {239} and inferences, for nothing less than the "strong consolation," as the Apostle speaks, of those "immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie," His counsel and His oath. Christian earnestness may be ruled by the world to be a perverseness or a delusion; but, as long as it exists, it will presuppose certitude as the very life which is to animate it.

This is the true parallel between human and divine knowledge; each of them opens into a large field of mere opinion, but in both the one and the other the primary principles, the general, fundamental, cardinal truths are immutable. In human matters we are guided by probabilities, but, I repeat, they are probabilities founded on certainties. It is on no probability that we are constantly receiving the informations and dictates of sense and memory, of our intellectual instincts, of the moral sense, and of the logical faculty. It is on no probability that we receive the generalizations of science, and the great outlines of history. These are certain truths; and from them each of us forms his own judgments and directs his own course, according to the probabilities which they suggest to him, as the navigator applies his observations and his charts for the determination of his course. Such is the main view to be taken of the separate provinces of probability and certainty in matters of this world; and so, as regards the world invisible and future, we have a direct and conscious knowledge of our Maker, His attributes, His providences, acts, works, and will, from nature, and revelation; and, beyond this knowledge lies the large domain of theology, metaphysics, and ethics, {240} on which it is not allowed to us to advance beyond probabilities, or to attain to more than an opinion.

Such on the whole is the analogy between our knowledge of matters of this world and matters of the world unseen;—indefectible certitude in primary truths, manifold variations of opinion in their application and disposition.


I have said that Certitude, whether in human or divine knowledge, is attainable as regards general and cardinal truths; and that in neither department of knowledge, on the whole, is certitude discredited, lost, or reversed: for, in matter of fact, whether in human or divine, those primary truths have ever kept their place from the time when they first took possession of it. However, there is one obvious objection which may be made to this representation, and I proceed to take notice of it.

It may be urged then, that time was when the primary truths of science were unknown, and when in consequence various theories were held, contrary to each other. The first element of all things was said to be water, to be air, to be fire; the framework of the universe was eternal; or it was the ever-new combination of innumerable atoms: the planets were fixed in solid crystal revolving spheres; or they moved round the earth in epicycles mounted upon circular orbits; or they were carried whirling round about the sun, while the sun was whirling round the earth. About such doctrines there was no certitude, no more than there is now certitude about the origin of languages, {241} the age of man, or the evolution of species, considered as philosophical questions. Now theology is at present in the very same state in which natural science was five hundred years ago; and this is the proof of it,—that, instead of there being one received theological science in the world, there are a multitude of hypotheses. We have a professed science of Atheism, another of Deism, a Pantheistic, ever so many Christian theologies, to say nothing of Judaism, Islamism, and the Oriental religions. Each of these creeds has its own upholders, and these upholders all certain that it is the very and the only truth, and these same upholders, it may happen, presently giving it up, and then taking up some other creed, and being certain again, as they profess, that it and it only is the truth, these various so-called truths being incompatible with each other. Are not Jews certain about their interpretation of their law? yet they become Christians: are not Catholics certain about the new law? yet they become Protestants. At present then, and as yet, there is no clear certainty any where about religious truth at all; it has still to be discovered; and therefore for Catholics to claim the right to lay down the first principles of theological science in their own way, is to assume the very matter in dispute. First let their doctrines be universally received, and then they will have a right to place them on a level with the certainty which belongs to the laws of motion or of refraction. This is the objection which I propose to consider.

Now first as to the want of universal reception which is urged against the Catholic dogmas, this part of the {242} objection will not require many words. Surely a truth or a fact may be certain, though it is not generally received;—we are each of us ever gaining through our senses various certainties, which no one shares with us; again, the certainties of the sciences are in the possession of a few countries only, and for the most part only of the educated classes in those countries; yet the philosophers of Europe and America would feel certain that the earth rolled round the sun, in spite of the Indian belief of its being supported by an elephant with a tortoise under it. The Catholic Church then, though not universally acknowledged, may without inconsistency claim to teach the primary truths of religion, just as modern science, though but partially received, claims to teach the great principles and laws which are the foundation of secular knowledge, and that with a significance to which no other religious system can pretend, because it is its very profession to speak to all mankind, and its very badge to be ever making converts all over the earth, whereas other religions are more or less variable in their teaching, tolerant of each other, and local, and professedly local, in their habitat and character.

This, however, is not the main point of the objection; the real difficulty lies not in the variety of religions, but in the contradiction, conflict, and change of religious certitudes. Truth need not be universal, but it must of necessity be certain; and certainty, in order to be certainty, must endure; yet how is this reasonable expectation fulfilled in the case of religion? On the contrary, those who have been the most certain in their beliefs are sometimes found to lose them, Catholics {243} as well as others; and then to take up new beliefs, perhaps contrary ones, of which they become as certain as if they had never been certain of the old.

In answering this representation, I begin with recurring to the remark which I have already made, that assent and certitude have reference to propositions, one by one. We may of course assent to a number of propositions all together, that is, we may make a number of assents all at once; but in doing so we run the risk of putting upon one level, and treating as if of the same value, acts of the mind which are very different from each other in character and circumstance. An assent, indeed, is ever an assent; but given assents may be strong or weak, deliberate or impulsive, lasting or ephemeral. Now a religion is not a proposition, but a system; it is a rite, a creed, a philosophy, a rule of duty, all at once; and to accept a religion is neither a simple assent to it nor a complex, neither a conviction nor a prejudice, neither a notional assent nor a real, not a mere act of profession, nor of credence, nor of opinion, nor of speculation, but it is a collection of all these various kinds of assents, at once and together, some of one description, some of another; but, out of all these different assents, how many are of that kind which I have called certitude? Certitudes indeed do not change, but who shall pretend that assents are indefectible?

For instance: the fundamental dogma of Protestantism is the exclusive authority of Holy Scripture; but in holding this a Protestant holds a host of propositions, explicitly or implicitly, and holds them with assents of various character. Among these propositions, he {244} holds that Scripture is the Divine Revelation itself, that it is inspired, that nothing is known in doctrine but what is there, that the Church has no authority in matters of doctrine, that, as claiming it, it condemned long ago in the Apocalypse, that St. John wrote the Apocalypse, that justification is by faith only, that our Lord is God, that there are seventy-two generations between Adam and our Lord. Now of which, out of all these propositions, is he certain? and to how many of them is his assent of one and the same description? His belief, that Scripture is commensurate with the Divine Revelation, is perhaps implicit, not conscious; as to inspiration, he does not well know what the word means, and his assent is scarcely more than a profession; that no doctrine is true but what can be proved from Scripture he understands, and his assent to it is what I have called speculative; that the Church has no authority he holds with a real assent or belief; that the Church is condemned in the Apocalypse is a standing prejudice; that St. John wrote the Apocalypse is his opinion; that justification is by faith only, he accepts, but scarcely can be said to apprehend; that our Lord is God perhaps he is certain; that there are seventy-two generations between Adam and Christ he accepts on credence. Yet, if he were asked the question, he would most probably answer that he was certain of the truth of "Protestantism," though "Protestantism" means these things and a hundred more all at once, and though he believes with actual certitude only one of them all,—that indeed a dogma of most sacred importance, but not the discovery of {245} Luther or Calvin. He would think it enough to say that he was a foe to "Romanism" and "Socinianism," and to avow that he gloried in the Reformation. He looks upon each of these religious professions, Protestantism, Romanism, Socinianism and Theism, merely as units, as if they were not each made up of many elements, as if they had nothing in common, as if a transition from the one to the other involved a simple obliteration of all that had been as yet written on his mind, and would be the reception of a new faith.

When, then, we are told that a man has changed from one religion to another, the first question which we have to ask, is, have the first and the second religions nothing in common? If they have common doctrines, he has changed only a portion of his creed, not the whole: and the next question is, has he ever made much of any doctrines but such as are if otherwise common to his new creed and his old? what doctrines was he certain of among the old, and what among the new?

Thus, of three Protestants, one becomes a Catholic, a second a Unitarian, and a third an unbeliever: how is this? The first becomes a Catholic, because he assented, as a Protestant, to the doctrine of our Lord's divinity, with a real assent and a genuine conviction, and because this certitude, taking possession of his mind, led him on to welcome the Catholic doctrines of the Real Presence and of the Theotocos, till his Protestantism fell off from him, and he submitted himself to the Church. The second became a Unitarian, because, proceeding on the principle that Scripture was the rule of faith and that a man's private judgment was its rule of interpretation, {246} and finding that the doctrine of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds did not follow by logical necessity from the text of Scripture, he said to himself, "The word of God has been made of none effect by the traditions of men," and therefore nothing was left for him but to profess what he considered primitive Christianity, and to become a Humanitarian. The third gradually subsided into infidelity, because he started with the Protestant dogma, cherished in the depths of his nature, that a priesthood was a corruption of the simplicity of the Gospel. First, then, he would protest against the sacrifice of the Mass; next he gave up baptismal regeneration, and the sacramental principle; then he asked himself whether dogmas were not a restraint on Christian liberty as well as sacraments; then came the question, what after all was the use of teachers of religion? why should any one stand between him and his Maker? After a time it struck him, that this obvious question had to be answered by the Apostles, as well as by the Anglican clergy; so he came to the conclusion that the true and only revelation of God to man is that which is written on the heart. This did for a time, and he remained a Deist. But then it occurred to him, that this inward moral law was there within the breast, whether there was a God or not, and that it was a roundabout way of enforcing that law, to say that it came from God, and simply unnecessary, considering it carried with it its own sacred and sovereign authority, as our feelings instinctively testified; and when he turned to look at the physical world around him, he really did not see what scientific proof there {247} was there of the Being of God at all, and it seemed to him as if all things would go on quite as well as at present, without that hypothesis as with it; so he dropped it, and became a purus, putus Atheist.

Now the world will say, that in these three cases old certitudes were lost, and new were gained; but it is not so: each of the three men started with just one certitude, as he would have himself professed, had he examined himself narrowly; and he carried it out and carried it with him into a new system of belief. He was true to that one conviction from first to last; and on looking back on the past, would perhaps insist upon this, and say he had really been consistent all through, when others made much of his great changes in religious opinion. He has indeed made serious additions to his initial ruling principle, but he has lost no conviction of which he was originally possessed.

I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church's infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines "which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught," whereas it really meant "whatever the Church then or at any future time {248} should teach." Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

The first point to be ascertained, then, when we hear of a change of religious certitude in another, is, what the doctrines are on which his so-called certitude before now and at present has respectively fallen. All doctrines besides these were the accidents of his profession, and the indefectibility of certitude would not be disproved, though he changed them every year. There are few religions which have no points in common; and these, whether true or false, when embraced with an absolute conviction, are the pivots on which changes take place in that collection of credences, opinions, prejudices, and other assents, which make up what is called a man's selection and adoption of a form of religion, a denomination, or a Church. There have been Protestants whose idea of enlightened Christianity has been a strenuous antagonism to what they consider the unmanliness and unreasonableness of Catholic morality, an antipathy to the precepts of patience, meekness, forgiveness of injuries, and chastity. All this they have considered a woman's religion, the ornament of monks, of the sick, the feeble, and the old. Lust, revenge, ambition, courage, pride, these, they {249} have fancied, made the man, and want of them the slave. No one could fairly accuse such men of any great change of their convictions, or refer to them in proof of the defectibility of certitude, if they were one day found to have taken up the profession of Islam.

And if this intercommunion of religions holds good, even when the common points between them are but errors held in common, much more natural will be the transition from one religion to another, without injury to existing certitudes, when the common points, the objects of those certitudes, are truths; and still stronger in that case and more constraining will be the sympathy, with which minds that love truth, even when they have surrounded it with error, will yearn towards the Catholic faith, which contains within itself, and claims as its own, all truth that is elsewhere to be found, and more than all, and nothing but truth. This is the secret of the influence, by which the Church draws to herself converts from such various and conflicting religions. They come, not so much to lose what they have, as to gain what they have not; and in order that, by means of what they have, more may be given to them. St. Augustine tells us that there is no false teaching without an intermixture of truth; and it is by the light of those particular truths, contained respectively in the various religions of men, and by our certitudes about them, which are possible wherever those truths are found, that we pick our way, slowly perhaps, but surely, into the One Religion which God has given, taking our certitudes with us, not to lose, but to keep them more securely, and to understand and love their objects more perfectly. {250}

Not even are idolaters and heathen out of the range of some of these religious truths and their correlative certitudes. The old Greek and Roman polytheists had, as they show in their literature, clear and strong notions, nay, vivid mental images, of a Particular Providence, of the power of prayer, of the rule of Divine Governance, of the law of conscience, of sin and guilt, of expiation by means of sacrifices, and of future retribution: I will even add, of the Unity and Personality of the Supreme Being. This it is that throws such a magnificent light over the Homeric poems, the tragic choruses, and the Odes of Pindar; and it has its counterpart in the philosophy of Socrates and of the Stoics, and in such historians as Herodotus. It would be out of place to speak confidently of a state of society which has passed away, but at first sight it does not appear why the truths which I have enumerated should not have received as genuine and deliberate an assent on the part of Socrates or Clanthes, (of course with divine aids, but they do not enter into this discussion), as was given to them by St. John or St. Paul, nay, an assent which rose to certitude. Much more safely may it be pronounced of a Mahometan, that he may have a certitude of the Divine Unity, as well as a Christian; and of a Jew, that he may believe as truly as a Christian in the resurrection of the body; and of a Unitarian that he can give a deliberate and real assent to the fact of a supernatural revelation, to the Christian miracles, to the eternal moral law, and to the immortality of the soul. And so, again, a Protestant may, not only in words, but in mind and heart, hold, as if he were a {251} Catholic, with simple certitude, the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, of the fall of man, of the need of regeneration, of the efficacy of Divine Grace, and of the possibility and danger of falling away. And thus it is conceivable that a man might travel in his religious profession all the way from heathenism to Catholicity, through Mahometanism, Judaism, Unitarianism, Protestantism, and Anglicanism, without any one certitude lost, but with a continual accumulation of truths, which claimed from him and elicited in his intellect fresh and fresh certitudes.

In saying all this, I do not forget that the same doctrines, as held in different religions, may be and often are held very differently, as belonging to distinct wholes or forms, as they are called, and exposed to the influence and the bias of the teaching, perhaps false, with which they are associated. Thus, for instance, whatever be the resemblance between St. Augustine's doctrine of Predestination and the tenet of Calvin upon it, the two really differ from each other toto cœlo in significance and effect, in consequence of the place they hold in the systems in which they are respectively incorporated, just as shades and tints show so differently in a painting according to the masses of colour to which they are attached. But, in spite of this, a man may so hold the doctrine of personal election as a Calvinist, as to be able still to hold it as a Catholic.

However, I have been speaking of certitudes which remain unimpaired, or rather confirmed, by a change of religion; on the contrary there are others, whether we call them certitudes or convictions, which perish in the {252} change, as St. Paul's conviction of the sufficiency of the Jewish Law came to an end on his becoming a Christian. Now how is such a series of facts to be reconciled with the doctrine which I have been enforcing? What conviction could be stronger than the faith of the Jews in the perpetuity of the Mosaic system? Those, then, it may be said, who abandoned Judaism for the Gospel, surely, in so doing, bore the most emphatic of testimonies to the defectibility of certitude. And, in like manner, a Mahometan may be so deeply convinced that Mahomet is the prophet of God, that it would be only by a quibble about the meaning of the word "certitude" that we could maintain, that, on his becoming a Catholic, he did not unequivocally prove that certitude is defectible. And it may be argued, perhaps, in the case of some members of the Church of England, that their faith in the validity of Anglican orders, and the invisibility of the Church's unity, is so absolute, so deliberate, that their abandonment of it, did they become Catholics or sceptics, would be tantamount to the abandonment of a certitude.

Now, in meeting this difficulty, I will not urge (lest I should be accused of quibbling), that certitude is a conviction of what is true, and that these so-called certitudes have come to nought, because, their objects being errors, not truths, they really were not certitudes at all; nor will I insist, as I might, that they ought to be proved first to be something more than mere prejudices, assents without reason and judgment, before they can fairly be taken as instances of the defectibility of certitude; but I simply ask, as regards the zeal of the {253} Jews for the sufficiency of their law, (even though it implied genuine certitude, not a prejudice, not a mere conviction,) still was such zeal, such professed certitude, found in those who were eventually converted, or in those who were not; for, if those who had not that certitude became Christians and those who had it remained Jews, then loss of certitude in the latter is not instanced in the fact of the conversion of the former. St. Paul certainly is an exception, but his conversion, as also his after-life, was miraculous; ordinarily speaking, it was not the zealots who supplied members to the Catholic Church, but those "men of good will," who, instead of considering the law as perfect and eternal, "looked for the redemption of Israel," and for "the knowledge of salvation in the remission of sins." And, in like manner, as to those learned and devout men among the Anglicans at the present day, who come so near the Church without acknowledging her claims, I ask whether there are not two classes among them also,—those who are looking out beyond their own body for the perfect way, and those on the other hand who teach that the Anglican communion is the golden mean between men who believe too much and men who believe too little, the centre of unity to which East and West are destined to gravitate, the instrument and the mould, as the Jews might think of their own moribund institutions, through which the kingdom of Christ is to be established all over the earth. And next I would ask, which of these two classes supplies converts to the Church; for if they come from among those who never professed to be {254} quite certain of the special strength of the Anglican position, such men cannot be quoted as instances of the defectibility of certitude.

There is indeed another class of beliefs, of which I must take notice, the failure of which may be taken at first sight as a proof that certitude may be lost. Yet they clearly deserve no other name than prejudices, as being founded upon reports of facts, or on arguments, which will not bear careful examination. Such was the disgust felt towards our predecessors in primitive times, the Christians of the first centuries, as a secret society, as a conspiracy against the civil power, as a set of mean, sordid, despicable fanatics, as monsters revelling in blood and impurity. Such also is the deep prejudice now existing against the Church among Protestants, who dress her up in the most hideous and loathsome images, which rightly attach, in the prophetic descriptions, to the evil spirit, his agents and instruments. And so of the numberless calumnies directed against individual Catholics, against our religious bodies and men in authority, which serve to feed and sustain the suspicion and dislike with which everything Catholic is regarded in this country. But as a persistence in such prejudices is no evidence of their truth, so an abandonment of them is no evidence that certitude can fail.

There is yet another class of prejudices against the Catholic Religion, which is far more tolerable and intelligible than those on which I have been dwelling, but still in no sense certitudes. Indeed, I doubt whether they would be considered more than presumptive opinions by the persons who entertain them. Such {255} is the idea which has possessed certain philosophers, ancient and modern, that miracles are an infringement and disfigurement of the beautiful order of nature. Such, too, is the persuasion, common among political and literary men, that the Catholic Church is inconsistent with the true interests of the human race, with social progress, with rational freedom, with good government. A renunciation of these imaginations is not a change in certitudes.

So much on this subject. All concrete laws are general, and persons, as such, do not fall under laws. Still, I have gone a good way, as I think, to remove the objections to the doctrine of the indefectibility of certitude in matters of religion, though I cannot assign to it an infallible token.


One further remark may be made. Certitude does not admit of an interior, immediate test, sufficient to discriminate it from false certitude. Such a test is rendered impossible from the circumstance that, when we make the mental act expressed by "I know," we sum up the whole series of reflex judgments which might, each in turn, successively exercise a critical function towards those of the series which precede it. But still, if it is the general rule that certitude is indefectible, will not that indefectibility itself become at least in the event a criterion of the genuineness of the certitude? or is there any rival state or habit of the intellect, which claims to be indefectible also? A few words will suffice to answer these questions. {256}

Premising that all rules are but general, especially those which relate to the mind, I observe that indefectibility may at least serve as a negative test of certitude, or sine qu non condition, so that whoever loses his conviction on a given point is thereby proved not to have been certain of it. Certitude ought to stand all trials, or it is not certitude. Its very office is to cherish and maintain its object, and its very lot and duty is to sustain rude shocks in maintenance of it without being damaged by them.

I will take an example. Let us suppose we are told on an unimpeachable authority, that a man whom we saw die is now alive again and at his work, as it was his wont to be; let us suppose we actually see him and converse with him; what will become of our certitude of his death? I do not think we should give it up; how could we, when we actually saw him die? At first, indeed, we should be thrown into an astonishment and confusion so great, that the world would seem to reel round us, and we should be ready to give up the use of our senses and of our memory, of our reflective powers, and of our reason, and even to deny our power of thinking, and our existence itself. Such confidence have we in the doctrine that when life goes it never returns. Nor would our bewilderment be less, when the first blow was over; but our reason would rally, and with our reason our certitude would come back to us. Whatever came of it, we should never cease to know and to confess to ourselves both of the contrary facts, that we saw him die, and that after dying we saw him alive again. The overpowering strangeness of our experience {257} would have no power to shake our certitude in the facts which created it.

Again, let us suppose, for argument's sake, that ethnologists, philologists, anatomists, and antiquarians agreed together in separate demonstrations that there were half a dozen races of men, and that they were all descended from gorillas, or chimpanzees, or ourangoutangs, or baboons; moreover, that Adam was an historical personage, with a well-ascertained dwelling-place, surroundings and date, in a comparatively modern world. On the other hand, let me believe that the Word of God Himself distinctly declares that there were no men before Adam, that he was immediately made out of the slime of the earth, and that he is the first father of all men that are or ever have been. Here is a contradiction of statements more direct than in the former instance; the two cannot stand together; one or other of them is untrue. But whatever means I might be led to take, for making, if possible, the antagonism tolerable, I conceive I should never give up my certitude in that truth which on sufficient grounds I determined to come from heaven. If I so believed, I should not pretend to argue, or to defend myself to others; I should be patient; I should look for better days; but I should still believe. If, indeed, I had hitherto only half believed, if I believed with an assent short of certitude, or with an acquiescence short of assent, or hastily or on light grounds, then the case would be altered; but if, after full consideration, and availing myself of my best lights, I did think that beyond all question God spoke as I thought He did, {258} philosophers and experimentalists might take their course for me,—I should consider that they and I thought and reasoned in different mediums, and that my certitude was as little in collision with them or damaged by them, as if they attempted to counteract in some great matter chemical action by the force of gravity, or to weigh magnetic influence against capillary attraction. Of course, I am putting an impossible case, for philosophical discoveries cannot really contradict divine revelation.

So much on the indefectibility of certitude; as to the question whether any other assent is indefectible besides it, I think prejudice may be such; but it cannot be confused with certitude, for the one is an assent previous to rational grounds, and the other an assent given expressly after careful examination.

It seems then that on the whole there are three conditions of certitude: that it follows on investigation and proof, that it is accompanied by a specific sense of intellectual satisfaction and repose, and that it is irreversible. If the assent is made without rational grounds, it is a rash judgment, a fancy, or a prejudice; if without the sense of finality, it is scarcely more than an inference; if without permanence, it is a mere conviction.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


ii. n. 154. Vide Note I at the end of the volume.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.